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AARP Helps to Shape Medicare

Quality health insurance for all retirees remains a top priority

spinner image Advertisement that reads: Your Social Security, Medicare helps older Americans pay hospital and medical expenses. Nearing 65?, Sign u for Medicare 2 or 3 months before your birthday.
Social Security History Archive & Museum

On July 30, 1965, President Lyndon Johnson signed the Social Security Amendments Act of 1965, the bill that created Medicare. Medicare is the federal health insurance program for all people age 65 and older, regardless of income or medical history, and for people under age 65 with permanent disabilities. It now covers more than 54 million Americans.

The idea of medical coverage for older Americans tied to Social Security had been discussed since the beginning of Social Security itself in the 1930s. It is said President Franklin D. Roosevelt considered a medical insurance component for Social Security but feared it would doom the prospects for getting Social Security through Congress.

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It wasn’t until 1952 that the idea for health insurance for Social Security beneficiaries began to receive serious discussion in Congress. And it wasn’t until 1957 that a bill by U.S. Rep. Aime Forand (D-R.I.) was introduced to provide hospital insurance for Social Security beneficiaries. Hearings were held in 1958, but there was strong opposition and no progress.

While AARP was founded after the campaign to create the program that eventually became Medicare had begun, the Association and its founder, Dr. Ethel Percy Andrus, would nevertheless play an active and important role in championing health insurance for older Americans and crafting Medicare into a successful program.

We believe that the health of our senior citizens is the concern of all our people.... Once a luxury, [health protection] is now considered as a necessity in the same category as food, clothing and shelter. We maintain that it is the responsibility of society to make available to every older person the best and the least expensive types of medical protection.”

Dr. Ethel Percy Andrus, founder, AARP

Dr. Andrus knew something about the challenges of providing affordable health insurance to retired people. In the 1950s, she started knocking on the doors of insurance companies, looking for one willing to offer group health insurance to members of the National Retired Teachers Association (NRTA). It took 42 doors before one would open. But when it did, in 1956, it was life changing for older Americans. In 1958 Dr. Andrus formed AARP, in part to extend a group health plan to all retired persons.

Because of the health coverage AARP and NRTA offered to their members, some assumed that Dr. Andrus might be less than enthusiastic about, or even oppose the idea of Medicare. Not true. Dr. Andrus advocated what was best for all older Americans. She said, “[Our Association] is proud of the success of our pioneering effort in the cause of health protection, but it wants for all older people the best insurance for the lowest cost.”

The Forand Bill was reintroduced in 1959 and again met strong opposition. This time, however, there was an AARP. In hopes of bringing the sides together and ending the gridlock, Dr. Andrus offered a comprehensive alternative. “On July 16, 1959,” she said, “I presented to the House Ways and Means Committee our proposed compromise to the Forand Bill, a compromise which we believe overcomes many of the controversial features of that bill.” AARP felt its proposal offered broader coverage and addressed the major objections of the medical profession and private industry.

AARP’s compromise wasn't accepted, and the Forand Bill itself got only as far as two committee votes early in 1960. It was defeated each time.

In 1960, Sen. John F. Kennedy (D-Mass.) made hospital insurance for the elderly — what he was now calling “Medicare” — a major issue in his presidential campaign. In his speech closing the first White House Conference on Aging in January 1961, President-elect Kennedy asked for support for Medicare, which was introduced in Congress the following month.

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From 1961 until 1965, political gridlock stymied progress on Medicare legislation. Bills were introduced and reintroduced, and hearings were held, at which AARP testified. But it was the historic landslide election of Lyndon Johnson in 1964 that paved the way for Medicare’s passage in 1965.

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President Lyndon Johnson signs the bill creating Medicare at the Harry S. Truman Library in Independence, Mo., as the former president looks on. Standing (from left) Lady Bird Johnson, Vice President Hubert Humphrey and Bess Truman.
Universal History Archive/UIG via Getty Images

AARP’s proposed changes to the Medicare legislation resulted in a fairer and stronger Medicare program. AARP lobbied diligently to make coverage available to all older persons — not just Social Security beneficiaries. And AARP insisted that Medicare  be  administered through Social Security — but include the establishment of a Hospital Insurance Trust Fund separate from the Social Security Trust Fund. Both provisions were incorporated into the final Medicare legislation.

Today AARP remains one of Medicare’s strongest advocates. Medicare provides guaranteed, affordable coverage that millions of older Americans depend on.

But the program faces a number of challenges, including the rising cost of health care and a growing aging population. Too many politicians in Washington say the answer to these challenges is simply to cut benefits or force seniors to pay more. AARP believes there’s a better way. AARP is fighting for responsible solutions to keep Medicare strong — advocating to lower the price of prescription drugs; improving coordination of care and use of technology; and cutting out unnecessary testing, excess paperwork, waste and fraud. Through such actions. Washington can start to put Medicare on stable ground — not only for today’s retirees but also for our children and grandchildren.